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Reality Check

April 6, 2022

Reality Check #11: America’s Indo-Pacific strategy requires tough choices

By Kelly A. Grieco

Key points

  • In a world of intensifying great-power competition, limited resources require painful choices, but the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy avoids confronting any tradeoffs or dilemmas.
  • Both America’s pursuit of liberal democratic values in the Indo-Pacific and its absence from regional trade agreements are counterproductive for organizing cooperation against China.
  • Moving forward, the Biden administration will need to scrutinize key assumptions and confront hard decisions regarding how to keep ends and means in balance.

What’s the issue?

“To govern is to choose, however difficult the choices,” Pierre Mendès-France, a leading critic of the French war in Indochina, told the French National Assembly in June 1953. At the time, France was gripped by political indecision and inertia; Paris seemed incapable of deciding whether to fight to preserve its colonial empire or to withdraw from Indochina and prioritize European security concerns. A year later, Mendès-France, who became premier, signed a peace agreement with the Vietminh, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States marking the end of the French colonial presence in Southeast Asia. 

The Biden administration confronts similar security dilemmas today: there are more threats to US strategic interests than national assets to deal with them all. In a world of intensifying great-power competition, limited resources require painful choices. The task of the strategist is to bring power and commitments into balance, or, in the words of historian Hal Brands, “states must determine which interests are truly vital and which threats and opportunities are most urgent, and then deploy their resources accordingly.” The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy largely avoids the hard decisions about whether to pursue national interests or values, whether to prioritize economic statecraft or domestic political concerns, and how to reconcile political objectives with constraints on national resources and coalition-building.

The strategy paper was unveiled as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the Pacific, meeting with officials from Japan, Australia, the Pacific Island nations, and other countries. During the past year, the Biden administration has made clear its intention to prioritize the Indo-Pacific region, characterizing China as the “only competitor” with the “power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” With this sober appraisal came a recognition that meeting the demands of strategic competition with China—the most powerful challenger the United States has ever faced—will require a massive concentration of American resources in the Indo-Pacific region. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and efforts to build a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia both aimed to free up US resources for the Indo-Pacific. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended this strategic calculus. The administration’s decision to release the Indo-Pacific strategy amid the gravest post-Cold War crisis in Europe is curious. If the timing is intended to demonstrate that the United States can, as Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby recently said, “walk and chew gum at the same time” with respect to Russia and China, unfortunately, it has only reinforced that the United States is dangerously overstretched.

The Indo-Pacific strategy’s defining characteristic is inertia — it is based on the same faulty assumptions, inherent tensions, and end-means mismatches that have characterized US strategy for decades.

The same can be said of the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy itself, a document that does not articulate clear policy decisions. It advances ambitious objectives—”to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, prosperous, secure, and resilient.” Key elements of the strategy range from modernizing alliances and working with regional organizations to strengthening democratic institutions and building a new economic framework. It has breathtakingly expansive ambitions, vowing to “focus on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands.” If everything is a priority, then nothing is. 

That said, the strategy makes two positive course corrections: First, rather than the Trump administration’s purely confrontational approach, it proposes to “manage competition” with China “responsibly” and to “work with” Beijing “in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.” The Biden administration makes competition once more a means to an end rather than the end itself. This is wise; if left unchecked, competition for competition’s sake increases the risk of an escalation into conflict. Second, the strategy offers a more realistic and nuanced approach to security cooperation in the region, both differentiating between “treaty allies” and “partners” and acknowledging minilaterals in the regional security architecture rather than oversimplifying complex realities. For example, the strategy promises to “work in flexible [regional] groupings,” including with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and through the Quad and Australia, United Kingdom, and United States (AUKUS) partnerships, to address “the defining issues of our time.”

Although it is a positive step, the Indo-Pacific strategy is not bold enough in terms of strategic prioritization. Its defining characteristic is inertia—it is based on the same faulty assumptions, inherent tensions, and end-means mismatches that have characterized US strategy for decades. What worked in the past—spending more and trying harder—is no longer sustainable. Rather than relying on a strategy that results in a large gap between ambitious goals and realistic ones, the Biden administration should embrace a clear-headed and courageous strategy that recognizes and adapts to the changing structure of global power.

Why does it matter?

The administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy is impressively ambitious, but that is also the problem. It insists that Washington can do it all, that it can pursue expansive objectives without confronting any tradeoffs or dilemmas. This is unrealistic. The administration would be well advised to address three unresolved and ultimately unsustainable contradictions in US strategy toward the Indo-Pacific, particularly as it crafts a separate China-specific strategy.

1. The pursuit of American interests does not neatly align with the promotion of American values in the region.

The Indo-Pacific strategy advances a “principled” approach to the region, promising to strengthen the “rules and norms that have benefited the Indo-Pacific and the world” and “keep it grounded in shared values.” To that end, it aims to support “good governance and accountability”—one of its core lines of effort—with investments in “democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society.” After its much-criticized Summit for Democracy—two-thirds of ASEAN countries failed to make the invite list—the administration seemingly tried to calibrate its strategic messaging to the region on democracy promotion. Notably, the strategy document uses the word “democracy” (or a derivative of it) a mere handful of times. Nevertheless, with references to “like-minded partners” and “shared values,” as well as calls to “root out corruption” and “bolster freedom of information and expression,” the strategy still touts the goal of democracy promotion. Critically, this wordsmithing is unlikely to convince countries in the region that the promotion of democracy is no longer a centerpiece of America’s foreign policy approach.

However noble it is to champion liberal values, democracy promotion is a poor foundation for successful engagement of the region. The Indo-Pacific’s political landscape is diverse, ranging from liberal democracies to authoritarian and hybrid regimes. Some key countries in the region—including India, which has undergone a turn toward autocracy in recent years—are unlikely to embrace a democratic values–based foreign policy. Southeast Asia’s deafening silence on Beijing’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang attests to a lack of regional support for human rights and democracy promotion. Many regional leaders are wary of US-China competition becoming an ideological contest between rival blocs. As Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien-Loong, noted about the region’s relations with China, “We must all learn to live with China . . . You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you.”

In short, the administration’s pursuit of liberal democratic values in the Indo-Pacific may prove counterproductive for organizing cooperation against China. Indeed, doing so risks weakening the strategic relationship between the United States and some of the most important regional allies and partners—such as the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—that are not liberal democracies. As during the Cold War, the United States confronts a tension between values and interests. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy contains more questions than answers about how to best keep these two missions—democracy promotion and strategic competition with China—in balance.

2. The United States cannot build a successful new regional economic framework without new trade agreements.

Pursuing regional prosperity as a central objective, the administration’s strategy proposes to establish a new “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework” that “will promote and facilitate high-standards trade, govern the digital economy, improve supply-chain resiliency and security, catalyze investment in transparent, high-standards infrastructure, and build digital connectivity.” In a region where many countries value economic cooperation more than traditional security cooperation and count China as their largest trading partner, the United States should make economic policy the linchpin of the American Indo-Pacific strategy. As former Secretary of State John Kerry often said, “Foreign policy is economic policy, and economic policy is foreign policy” in the Indo-Pacific. 

This point has not been lost on the Biden administration. White House Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell openly acknowledged that the United States is competing with not one or even two hands tied behind its back, but “maybe one foot tied back there as well.” He called on the United States to “step up its game” on economic engagement with countries in the Indo-Pacific, making this approach a defining element of US strategy in the region.

Despite Campbell’s sober assessment, the Indo-Pacific strategy’s economic offerings fall short of the challenge. The description of the US government’s Indo-Pacific economic framework lacks specifics, suggesting that the administration, as Daniel Drezner said, “still has some homework to do on the economic dimension.” The proposal is notable for what it is not—a free-trade deal. The administration has indicated that its envisioned “Indo-Pacific economic framework” will be nonbinding and exclude trade (beyond the digital domain) and investment liberalization. Although the United States has either withdrawn or abstained from the region’s major trade agreements—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)—China is already a member of the former and has applied to join the latter. Washington needs to get back in the trade game if it wants give countries in the region incentives to counter Chinese influence.

The Biden administration knows it needs a regional trade agenda, but it is paralyzed by its promise of a foreign policy for the middle class. With many working-class Americans feeling left behind in a globalized economy, and midterm elections looming, President Joe Biden may well feel that his hands are politically tied in negotiating new trade deals. Put differently, American free-trade skepticism is at odds with American national security interests. If China is indeed the threat to US national security interests that some claim, the American public will need to make sacrifices to counter it. But forgoing expanded free trade with Asia is not one of them. In 2016, the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated that joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the forerunner to CPTPP, would increase annual real incomes in the United States by $131 billion, or 0.5 percent of US gross domestic product (GDP). Politicians may rail against free trade for costing American jobs, but economists have shown that technology—not free trade—is mainly to blame. Moreover, most Americans view free trade as an opportunity for economic growth, suggesting that fears of a domestic political backlash may be overblown. Most important, the Biden administration cannot compete with China and expect to succeed without a robust free trade policy.

3. The Indo-Pacific strategy’s ultimate success hinges on collective balancing against China, but its approach to coalition-building is unconvincing.

The Indo-Pacific strategy is clear-eyed about the China challenge, acknowledging that the strategy’s goals “cannot be accomplished alone: changing strategic circumstances and historic challenges require unprecedented cooperation with those who share in this vision.” Given these strategic realities, the document advances a collective balancing strategy in which like-minded countries pull together to defend their common interests and deter military aggression. To this end, the Indo-Pacific strategy promises collective action, with plans to “work with allies and partners to deepen our interoperability,” “modernize treaty alliances,” “steadily advance our Major Defense Partnership with India,” “build capacity of partners,” and “foster security ties between our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.” Lest there be any doubt, the strategy makes clear that the focus of these efforts is China, asserting Beijing’s “coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific” and it offers “integrated deterrence” as the “cornerstone” of its regional security approach.

Nevertheless, the interests and capabilities of allies and partners inside and outside the region raise serious questions about whether such a strategy is workable. Regional leaders express growing concern about Chinese intentions, but defense spending by these US allies and partners remains anemic. Even Japan and Australia, two of China’ most vocal regional critics, respectively spend a paltry 1.3 percent and 2.09 percent of their GDP on defense annually. Compare that to over 3 percent of GDP the Biden administration intends to spend on defense this year. US allies and partners have limited military capabilities to bolster deterrence, casting serious doubt regarding the willingness of US allies and partners to put their resources behind US-led defense initiatives.

Outside the region, the strategy document envisions a greater regional role for the European Union (EU) and NATO countries. Unfortunately for the Biden administration, what was once a questionable proposition—European countries making a meaningful contribution to Indo-Pacific security—has been reduced to little more than wishful thinking after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The success of the Indo-Pacific strategy thus hinges on potentially faulty assumptions about what US allies and partners inside and outside the region are willing and able to do. The Biden administration’s difficult task is to resolve this imbalance of ends and means in US strategy.

What is the solution?

The Biden administration inherited a set of foreign and defense policies badly in need of repair. As it continues to build its Indo-Pacific agenda, the administration will need to scrutinize key assumptions and confront hard decisions regarding how to keep ends and means in balance. Policymakers should:  

1. Avoid a values-based framework. Building a coalition to counter China will be difficult if US policymakers emphasize democracy and liberal values over common interests in Washington’s relationships with countries in the region. In place of ideologically laden framings, like a “free and open Indo-Pacific” and “like-minded states,” the Biden administration should adopt an organizing principle with greater resonance for regional countries. In doing so, it need not look further than the president’s own words. In earlier conversations with regional leaders, Biden employed the phrase “secure and prosperous.” This more pragmatic language aligns better with the interests and perspectives of most Indo-Pacific countries than rhetoric focused on democracy promotion.

2. Prioritize trade policy.  US strategic and economic interests would be best served by a return to a revised TPP or applying to join its successor agreement, the CPTPP. China’s application to join the regional trade bloc should be a wake-up call for Washington. Regardless of its ultimate outcome, Beijing’s accession bid has succeeded in bringing renewed attention to Washington’s absence from regional trade agreements. With countries looking for an “equally substantive alternative” to CPTPP, the administration’s new economic framework is likely to come up short. The White House should reconsider its plans for a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, postponing its unveiling until it has worked out a more credible trade policy. Otherwise, it risks reinforcing regional impressions that the United States is not a reliable and committed economic player in the region.

3. Close the gap between ends and means. As others have noted, the United States faces a crisis of strategic insolvency—too few resources and too many security commitments. To bring commitments in line with US capabilities, Washington has two options: either adopt less ambitious ends or expand the means available to support them. Accomplishing this task will require a combination of prioritizing ends and increasing available resources. A more realistic statement of US strategic objectives may require a rethink of the Indo-Pacific formulation, narrowing America’s regional focus to East Asia and the Pacific—that is, prioritizing the areas of competition that matter most for US national security interests. Finding additional means will require US allies and partners to make greater contributions to regional security, starting with increased defense spending. Washington will also have to engage in frank conversations with regional allies and partners about what they are prepared to contribute to regional security.  

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Image: PEARL HARBOR (JULY 18, 2012) The Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Henry J. Kaiser (T-AO 187), left, delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels and traditional petroleum-based fuel to the guided-missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG 59) during the Great Green Fleet demonstration portion of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2012 exercise. In the background are the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (DDG 93). Twenty-two nations, more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel are participating in the biennial RIMPAC exercise from June 29 to Aug. 3, in and around the Hawaiian Islands. The world's largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC provides a unique training opportunity that helps participants foster and sustain the cooperative relationships that are critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. RIMPAC 2012 is the 23rd exercise in the series that began in 1971. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Ryan J. Mayes/Released) 120718-N-RC246-210 Join the conversation